Fossil fuel divestment campaign: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”


On the recent Do the Math tour, Bill McKibben, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, author Naomi Klein and other speakers and a team of organizers launched a campaign calling on churches, colleges, and others to divest their stock portfolios of investments in fossil fuel corporations — as was done in the the 1970s and 1980s as part of delegitimizing the apartheid regime in South Africa.  We support this.  McKibben, in Washington, D.C.: “The fossil fuel industry has behaved with such recklessness … that at this point they deserve to lose their social license, their veneer of respectability.”  Klein: “It’s our side that has been kidding itself.  For a long time the environmental movement behaved as if climate change was the one cause that didn’t have an enemy — that it was just a matter of getting the information out or finding the right technical fix and then everyone would realize that we’re all in this together.  But here’s the thing: we do have an enemy.”

Go Fossil Free divestment campaign

Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign Wraps Up First Semester on 189 Campuses

OAKLAND, CA — A new campaign to push colleges and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry has spread like wildfire to over 190 campuses across the country in just over a month. Now, as students head home for the holidays, organizers are celebrating some significant early victories and looking forward to a busy spring semester. …

See New York Times: To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios

Following are excerpts from our recording and transcription from the Do the Math Tour event, Warner Theater, Washington, D.C., November 18, 2012 (minus the loud applause and cheering that accompanied the speakers’ remarks in the packed auditorium):

Bill McKibben,

It’s high time we went on offense. What we are trying to do is make the case that the fossil fuel industry has behaved with such recklessness – they’ve known for many years what’s going on. You want proof they’ve known what’s going on?  Look at them lining up for permits to drill in the Arctic once they’ve melted it.  They’ve known the truth about global warming for a very long time.  They have behaved with such recklessness that at this point they deserve to lose their social license, their veneer of respectability.

There was a time — I see a few other people in this room who are old enough to remember — there was a time when the tobacco companies were perfectly respectable — and then we began to understand that they had lied and cheated.  What we need to get across is that, as the tobacco companies were to individual health, so the fossil fuel industry is to the safety of the planet.

So, how do we go on offense?  We have several tools to use.  First, we are going to talk about divestment.  We ask, or we demand, that institutions like colleges and churches sell their stock in these fossil fuel companies. The logic could not be more brutally simple.  If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.  The way the world is set up none of us can avoid using a certain amount of fossil fuel day-to-day.  You might want to take a train, but if there isn’t a train you can’t take it.  But all of us can figure out how to avoid profiting from it, supporting it, becoming a part of it, making it worse.

This argument has worked in a big way exactly one time in American history, about a generation ago, when the apartheid regime still ruled in South Africa.  We need to talk about that story for a moment, because it’s been sometimes forgotten — not by everybody, of course.  There are people in the room who are old enough to remember when America had its own legal apartheid.  But there are also people young enough in this room that they were born, thank heaven, after justice had triumphed in South Africa.   So I’ve asked Reverend Yearwood if he would come out and just remind us of what was really quite a beautiful chapter in our history.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Hip Hop Caucus:

In 1988, when scientists were sounding the first warnings about climate change, the nation of South Africa was still legally divided.  Black folk couldn’t move freely, they had to carry passes, they were herded in desolate reservations.  Their leaders were murdered by the police, like Steve Biko, or were stuck in prison, like Nelson Mandela.  And neither the U.S. government nor U.S. citizens responded.  We considered the white-led government an ally.  And our corporations made lots of money there.

Now the things that changed were you and me.  People in communities, on campuses, in churches, in synagogues, and mosques around the country stood up.  They launched a massive divestment campaign.  It took incredible, and I mean incredible, amounts of effort.  People had to persuade boards of trustees to sell stock even when those trustees said it would cost them money.  None of it came easy.  Lots of people had to occupy dean’s offices and boycott recruiters from companies, and stage giant rallies.  They had to go to jail by the thousands.

But they kept struggling at it, and quicker than you might imagine it started to work.  By the mid 1980s over 155 campuses, including some of the most famous in this country, had divested from South Africa.  About 26 state governments and 22 counties and 90 cities, including some of the biggest, took their money from the banks and they said, ‘we will not do business in that country any more.’  The people stood up and a change happened.

Now let me be clear, this fight will be harder in certain ways.  We all know how the fossil fuel industry works – some of them are here today — welcome to our rally.  The fossil fuel industry is even more powerful than the apartheid government of South Africa.  But in many ways it’s the same fight, because ultimately this fight is about moral battles, moral battles that we must and we can win.  And there is also one way that makes this case easier for us than the apartheid battle, because this is a fight that is in our interests.  And we must fight to go on.

Now let me say this, and let me use my position.  I’m now the president of the Hip Hop Caucus and many of you have helped that organization grow.  You have, because 4 or 5 years ago when I was coming through from Katrina and we were dealing with that, I said we can’t have segregated movements.  We can’t have the police brutality rally be all black, or the immigration be all brown, or the gay and lesbian rallies be always gays and lesbians.  It has to be all of us. …

We won that election in 2008.  We won that election.  And because we came together again we won that election just a few days ago.  That’s our win.

So my position now as the President of the Hip Hop Caucus, and also now as co-chair of the Black Leadership Forum. … I will call on my friends, and I know it’s very difficult, a lot of these fossil fuel companies finance a lot of the programs, and they finance the campaigns and they finance conferences.  I am calling on every black institution to divest from the fossil fuel industry today.  I’m calling on the 105 historical black colleges and universities across this land to divest from the fossil fuel industry today.  I am calling on every member of the congressional black caucus to turn their checks back over and to divest from the fossil fuel companies.  And finally I am calling on the first black President of the United States to divest and move away from that industry.

Naomi Klein:

This is a very special occasion.  We’re starting something really big here.  I think you can feel it.  Now I’ve been involved in a few boycott movements over the years.  When I was a university student we occupied the president’s office demanding that our school divest from South Africa.  And I’ve supported boycotts against sweatshops, abusive farming practices, and military occupations.  These were, and many still are, amazing movements.  But this is different.

In those cases we were trying to correct something specific in a company’s business practice: to get it to start paying its workers fairly, to stop busting unions, or to stop doing business with rogue regimes.  After the company fixed the problem, as far as we were concerned they could go on with business as usual.  You know what I mean.  If we go after Apple it’s because we want to company to pay its Chinese workers a decent wage, not because we want them to stop making iPhones.

But with the fossil fuel companies, it’s not that there is some slight problem with their business plan that needs correcting.  It’s that their business plan, the very core of it, is the problem.  Because their business plan is to wreck the planet.

That makes them a very special case, even within the realm of really bad business people.  The only possible analogy is the companies that manufacture nuclear weapons, but at least those companies tell us their weapons won’t actually be used to destroy the planet.  They are just kind of there as a deterrent.  Fossil fuel companies offer no such assurances.  In fact, they are counting on their particular brand of weapons being used, against your futures, against the climate, because burning carbon is the whole point of digging it up.

Now some people claim that we shouldn’t go after the fossil fuel companies because the ‘oil companies are us.’  They say the guy who drove a car to this event is just as guilty as Exxon.  Or maybe even more guilty, because according to the laws of supply and demand consumers are supposedly demanding that they dig up all that carbon to power our lifestyles.  And it’s true, we could all be doing more to curb our consumption.  But it’s also true that most people would be perfectly happy running their lives on renewable energy if they could.

It’s actually a pretty good analogy.  Just like getting off drugs, the hard work of carbon detox is ultimately ours.  No one can do it for us.  But in order for us to have a fighting chance of kicking the habit we have to get the pushers out of our faces.  And the pushers are the fossil fuel companies, the global carbon cartel.  Going after them won’t solve the problem, but it will create the necessary conditions for us to solve it ourselves.

It’s not like we aren’t trying.  Again and again we’ve seen popular movements rise up to combat climate change.  We all get fired up — and we start to recycle, and we start to bicycle, and we work like crazy to elect politicians who promise to build an economy based on green jobs and to pass comprehensive energy reform.  And we invest our hopes in big environmental summits in Rio or Copenhagen.  Again and again, over the past two-and-a-half decades, we have mobilized to make individual changes and to demand systemic ones.

And again and again this movement has somehow lost momentum — petered out. Why is that?  It’s not because deep down in our collective unconscious we really have some sort of death wish.  The problem is that our profound desire to protect life on Earth is a direct threat to Exxon and Shell’s desire to remain the most profitable companies in, as Bill puts it, “the history of money.”  Their stock price is based on always having in reserve as much as they have in production.  That means the very thing we must do to meet the climate challenge, stop digging, is the very thing they cannot contemplate without staring in the face of their own demise.

And by the way, it’s not just corporations.  Entire countries, the ones that heavily depend on oil revenues, end up waging a wholesale war on truth, attacking scientists and environmental groups simply because the truth challenges their economic paradigm.  Faced with such a serious threat to their bottom line, these forces fight like they mean it.

Every time the climate movement has gotten its act together, the fossil fuel interests have sent powerful lies into the culture and bankrolled their endless repetition:  that climate change is a hoax, that climate action will destroy the economy, that you have to choose between good jobs or a healthy planet.  They have bought our politicians and blanketed our airways.  And they have attacked our movements from all sides.  They have defamed us, infiltrated us, and tried to buy us off.

In short, they have behaved as if they are at war, because they are.  We really do want an end to their business model, not because we hate them, but because our survival depends on it.  It depends on getting them to leave proven reserves in the ground.

It’s our side that has been kidding itself.  For a long time the environmental movement behaved as if climate change was the one cause that didn’t have an enemy — that it was just a matter of getting the information out or finding the right technical fix and then everyone would realize that we are all in this together.  But here’s the thing: we do have an enemy.  We have a few of them, actually.  The good news is we know exactly who they are and as of right now, we’re going after them precisely where it hurts them most.

Remember this moment.  This is where we got serious.


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2 Responses to Fossil fuel divestment campaign: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

  1. Justin Bere says:

    Fabulous stuff! Great words and vision from Bill & Naomi!

  2. nikkinomad says:

    I’m so disappointed in what for the most part, is a great article. I’m a great fan of Naomi Klein and have read several of her books, however Naomi’s comparison of the fossil fuel and nuclear weapons industry and portrayal of the nuclear weapons industry as somehow benign, as if the nuclear fuel cycle poses no threats, and as if nuclear weapons really do provide some kind of deterrent, is at least misguided and at worst misleading.

    Naomi – I expected better from you. The Nuclear industry and the fossil fuel industry are inextricably linked. The nuclear industry is absolutely dependent on the fossil fuel industry for all parts of it’s operation from mining an milling to operation and ‘decommissioning’ never mind the energy requirements of the back-end i,e management of heat generating wastes into the far future.

    I’m sure they’re no more planning to leave uranium in the ground, than the fossil industry are planning to leave their reserves in the ground.
    Naomi’s assessment that the nuclear industry is doing us some big favour in the bigger scheme of things is factually inaccurate and also misleading for a public who need to be properly informed about the bigger picture and how all of these things relate to each other.

    The nuclear industry has put concerns about climate change to good use trying to re-brand itself as some kind of solution to climate change. Here in the UK we are reaping the nuclear industry’s harvest as our government plans a whole new fleet of nuclear reactors at the expense of technologies that have the capacity to support us in our fight against climate change.

    In Europe countries such as Germany have no illusions about the seriousness of climate change or the threats posed by the nuclear industry. Nuclear weapons, nuclear power and fossil fuels are inextricably linked, so if we’re going to talk about divestment lets have a complete picture and not a partial and inaccurate one.

    Unfortunately I don’t think that divestment in this context is appropriate, the reason?
    As Naomi says in previous boycotts we were trying to achieve something very specific – after the problem was fixed companies could continue with business as usual. And herein lies the problem, this article fails to discuss what is driving the rampant ‘resource’ exploitation namely economic growth which in turn is acting as a driver of environmental degradation.

    We cannot continue to have infinite growth in a finite planet, at the heart of all economic social and environmental policy world-wide is economic growth. This picture cannot be allowed to continue, until we have clear alternatives that the the public and nation states can have confidence in divestment is an unrealistic option. As Naomi points out divestment is a great tool when the problem is relatively small and not a systemic problem and there is no problem with what the ‘business’ as usual is. This is clearly not what we are facing.

    Here in the UK the state wants to continue the status quo with more nukes, fracking and ‘clean’ coal. Does this sound like the energy system of dreams or nightmares? The government is attacking the renewables sector and also attacking models of energy production and ownership that would help us to make a transition to a post-commercial mode of operation.

    And I haven’t even begun on the issue of nuclear proliferation, aided the world over by the promotion of nuclear power! Does the NPT stop ‘rogue’ states from acquiring nuclear weapons? Are nuclear weapons acting as a deterrent? No. Are nuclear weapons being deployed and used? Yes – under the radar – conventional weaponry is now tipped with uranium and depleted uranium as is evident from what has happened in Iraq where the USA and UK have deployed uranium weaponry and it has had the expected attendant negative impacts on public health in Iraq

    Don’t get me wrong I’m committed to fighting anthropogenic climate change – by addressing the human behaviours that cause it, and whether we succeed or fail there is always the possibility that life will adapt, obviously any such possibility is made more unlikely the more ‘climate change’ we create.

    What is abundantly clear however is that life cannot adapt to the mutagenic and teratogenic effects of ionising radiation. The Nuclear industry has been waging a well-concealed war against life at the genetic level for nearly a century. When are we going to wake up to that fact and it’s implications?

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